To say things haven’t been easy these past few years is an understatement. In 2020, the American Phycological Association called stress a “a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come” and we’ve all been feeling the burn.
So, what exactly is stress?
The American Psychological Association defines stress as “the physiological or psychological response to internal or external stressors.”
But in normal terms, “Stress is when your nervous system is mobilized, which can be a good thing,” says Nadia Jenefsky, Licensed Art Therapist, LCAT, Clinical Director at NY Creative Arts Therapists.
The difference between good and bad stress is what Alfiee Breland-Noble, psychologist and founder of the AAKOMA Project calls “Me-stress” and “Dis-stress.” The first is normal “excited” stress that happens after say you just found out you’re pregnant or the adrenaline rush that gets you up in morning and helps power you through sports activities or a performance. “But stress can be problematic when your neuro-psychological system activates in ways that can’t be released,” warns Jenefsky.
How does one experience stress in the body and mind?
“In the body it can feel like restlessness, fidgeting, heart pounding, sweaty palms, and blurred vision,” says Jenefsky. In the mind, it can be excessive worries, catastrophic thinking and when the stakes feel high for everything. It’s when your mind is going round in circles, and you can’t make it stop.
What’s stressing us right now?
While work-life balance issues and finances have always been a cause for stress, the pandemic have taken us to the next levels in terms of stress and trauma.
“I’m seeing a lot of stress in my clients around Covid,” says Lydiana García, Psychologist and host of The Beyond Resilience Life podcast. “Stress about the health of themselves and their loved ones. Stress around the interruptions to their children’s school and their work lives.” There’s also lots of worries about the state of the world, says Alfiee. “Racial and social justice issues, shootings, events that are affecting people of color in a disproportionate way.”
So how do we cope with stress?
It’s important to know that stress is different from mental health disorders like anxiety and depression, which are prolonged states that exists even when external stressors are removed and those require medical diagnoses and treatments. But there are many things you can do to help ease and alleviate your feeling of stress including:
1. Prioritizing self-care:
“You have to schedule time for things that make you feel good,” says Jenefsky. “We should all be as disciplined about self-care as we are about work. If you give your all for your work, you should keep that same level of commitment to yourself, too.” That means honoring time for the things that help bring you joy and relaxation like yoga, therapy, taking a walk, and having coffee with friends. “Mental health is one of the tools for my work,” says Jenefsky. “I’m like an Olympic athlete with my self-care. It’s important for my job and family to “train” in self-care practices, and I’m constantly using downtime to optimize my physical and mental health and over all wellness.” Jenefsky also warns about reaching for the “low-hanging fruit of self-care” like indulging in bad TV, alcohol, and sugar, that give you immediate relief, but aren’t good in the long-term.
Most stress doesn’t take place in the present. Your mind is worried about what’s going to happen or fretting about something that already did. To snap you out of the rumination, García recommends a mindfulness practice called “54321.”
When you are feeling stressed, stop, take a deep breath, and exhale, then identify 5 things you can see wherever you are: a picture on the wall, a beautiful tree outside, and so on. Then you take a moment to identify four sounds: birds, the air conditioning, music, car noise. Then you move on to become aware of three different textures in your surroundings: the smoothness of your computer, the ridges in the steering wheel, the prickliness of the succulent on your desk. Now, take in two smells around you, the lingering scent of a candle, someone grilling outside. Lastly, taste one thing even if it’s just swallowing a sip of water.
This present-moment awareness not only stops the whirling of the mind, but slows the heart rate, and relaxes the nervous system. And it’s a great practice you can employ anytime.
Alfiee says “I love meditation apps like Insight Timer, which is free,” which helps us focus on our breath. When we are nervous, we tend to take quick, shallow breaths. But taking longer and deeper breaths can help stimulate your vagus nerve and activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps with rest and digest. Jenefsky recommends clients practice diaphragmatic breathing, aka “belly breathing.” To do, you place two hands on your belly and inhale to expand like balloon to a count of five. Then keeping hands in place, exhale for a count of five as you “release the balloon” and your belly flattens. According to ClevelandClinic.org, belly breathing can help you relax, reduce blood pressure, improving anxiety and stress. pranayama is the biggest game changer in stress because it is a way to regulate our autonomic nervous system and engage the parasympathetic response
“Move a muscle, change a thought,” goes the old adage, and sometimes the best way to get stress out of the body it to move via exercise, dance. When your body is stressed, it gets into that flight-or-flight mode, and you can move those stress chemicals out by going for a run, putting on music to dance, and doing something physical. Practicing yoga helps bring both mindfulness and movement and studies show it can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Masha Schmidt, a yoga teacher, licensed (L.EC) acupuncturist, and founder of the Daydream Collaborative Clinic says that while Hatha yoga (yoga poses combined with breathwork) is beneficial, other aspects of yoga “like meditation, concentration and Yoga Nidra can have a strong impact on stress. So studying all the limbs of yoga and practicing yoga as more than just exercise is where the stress relieving benefits are most pronounced.”
5. Body work.
A lot of stress lives in our bodies even if we’re not aware of it: think of your tight chest or tense muscles. Many people turn to somatic (relating to the body) treatments like massage and acupuncture to help alleviate their stress. For her acupuncture clients, Schmidt find that “People come in disconnected from where stress lives in their body. They come in with symptoms of a racing heart and foggy thinking and feeling like ‘I can’t handle my life’ but they believe if they can just somehow ‘think differently’ something might change. I try to connect them to the sensations in their body so there’s an awareness of what’s going on body-wise, which I find in turn gives them a sense of autonomy which helps to lower their stress.” The National Institute of Health has found that acupuncture is effective in treating many ailments such as lower back pain, headaches, menstrual cramps, and other conditions that might be contributing to stress.
6. Enjoying Nature.
Earlier this year doctors in Canada made news when they began prescribing passes to national parks as part of treatment for health in wellness. According to The Washington Post,“Studies have shown that time in nature can lead to a range of benefits, from lower stress hormones and heart rate variability to higher self-esteem among children.” The director of the parks initiative also found that being in nature can help lower the stress we might be experiencing about climate change. “Nature is healing,” says García. “Going outside barefoot, laying in the grass, this connection is very grounding, and can calm you down when you feel amped up.” And being in nature doesn’t have to be time consuming. "A five-minute work break to go outside and sit under a tree, going on your balcony and watching a squirrels or birds, watering your plants, or even just opening the window and inhaling some fresh air, all these ways can work to come cleanse your mind and body of worry," says Alfiee.
As an arts therapist, Jenefsky works in all kinds of creative ways with her patients to move through emotions and relieve stress. “Scribbling on page, ripping paper, squeezing clay, these are all ways to release tension through body.” Jenefsky likes the agency and focus that creativity can bring. “Being expressive, learning a craft, playing music, focusing on a skill, when you’re in that 'in-the-moment-flow,' you’re engaged, you’re not thinking about your problems,” she says. “Creativity can also be like embracing the antidote to perfectionism,” adds Jenefsky, which can cause so many of us stress. "Let yourself try doing something you are not good at, like painting mug where the outcome doesn’t matter. Who cares if it’s ugly? It’s so much fun when you just let go.”
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